“Camps rarely turn into cabins,” he says, “but cabins surely do get renovated into pretty spectacular residences.”
From Millionaires’ to Billionaires’ Row
Of all the terms used in Canada, cottage was the first to move upscale in its pretensions to grandeur, which may explain its residual snob associations. Muskoka, a handy escape for Toronto plutocrats and American industrialists, had its Millionaires’ Row in the early 1900s, and vacationers who wanted a sampling of the wilderness experience were already scorning its golf clubs and yacht regattas.
Highway development and automobile ownership opened up cottage country and made it more accessible to the do-it-yourself masses, restoring a certain democratic humility of habitat. But more recently, cottage megalomania has returned: Muskoka now has a Billionaires’ Row and helipads for Hollywood holidayers – a far cry from “cottage” in its original sense.
“It’s possibly a word brought here by Loyalist settlers,” Ms. Barber says, “although these were people who probably didn’t have secondary country residences.” Native people lived in the woods, and their encampments would occasionally be visited by intrepid travellers such as Catharine Parr Traill in search of the picturesque. Loggers might indeed build a seasonal residence to shorten their commute to work, but it was a makeshift shelter with a down-at-heels name to match – a shanty, a shack, a tilt.
But when railways made the lakes and wilderness more accessible to the upper classes in the later 19th century, the word cottage was available to describe the civilized version of roughing it in the bush – nothing too fancy, but not too crude either, with all the advantages of the city available in a simpler, more restful setting.
This return to nature was predicated on an easy relationship with the beauties of the wild, as seen from the comforts of the veranda in the company of people like oneself. People stayed in railway-owned lodges at first, secure in the company of others. But quite rapidly a rougher, more individualized sense of wilderness experience begin to develop, creating the link we now recognize in Canadian English between the camps and cabins of the loggers and settlers and the cottages of the wealthier urbanites on holiday.
Luxury hotels come to Ontario’s rugged Algonquin Park in 1908. By 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway is opening “outpost camps” with individual cedar cabins for guests who want to get closer to the wild (while maintaining access to hot and cold running water). A railway brochure touting the park’s creature comforts promises “real camp life with only the rough edges taken off.”
So the built-in tensions between vocabulary, locale and experience are integral to the summer-getaway experience.
“The whole thing goes back to the essential Canadian dream, the cabin in the north, the return to nature,” says Dom Joly, a British comedian who discovered Muskoka’s summers a decade ago. “But Muskoka has gone insane in the 10 years I’ve been going there. Now, it’s like Kennebunkport, with all these uber-cottages.”
The linguistic fit may be more of a mismatch than ever. But the pleasure at the heart of it all, the one Mr. Joly keeps returning to despite these delusions of grandeur, remains the throwback experience the summer-getaway words suggest.
“For all that, there’s still a sense that you’re going back in time a bit,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about the kids all day, you don’t watch television, you play board games, you’re cut off from the stress of normal life.”
There’s only one problem he faces when he tries to spread the word about his Canadian cottage experience, and it’s once again a problem of language.
“Do you know what cottaging is here in Britain?” he asks. “I’m being polite here, but it’s what George Michael might get up to in a public convenience with another man. So when I tell people I’m off cottaging in Canada, it causes great confusion.”
John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
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